COLUMN: Human nature and the soul

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
May 14th, 2024

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”  Genesis, II, v. 7 [King James Bible, 1611]

This quotation has been translated into English from ancient Hebrew with notable variations for the last word: soul; being; creature; person. These variants indicate that the definition of a human is not easy now, and was not easy 3000 years ago. {About “soul”, see appendix *}

The argument: no such “thing” as human nature

I’m concerned with that much-referenced thing called “human nature.” I maintain there is no such defined quality and the phrase should be retired from use. I take my stand on an historian’s ground, the past experiences of our species as we understand it from historians’ scholarship.

But pre-history is far longer than history in the life of our species, and I must defer to the work of scholars in fields such as neuro-science, human biology, and evolutionary psychology, to help explain human being. A Canadian scientist, Dr. Merlin Donald – who makes the case for unique human consciousness – simply says, “We are constantly changing our nature… Human nature is not one thing… We are tinkering with our consciousness by our use of tools.” [appendix *]

That is the key to any talk about the human. There is no human nature; there are countless human natures. I would say the nature of each individual is one of a kind. That’s a possibility of stupendous significance: understanding our species as a species is a mystery, not comparable to understanding any other life-form.

[To fully appreciate Dr. Donald’s brilliant and far-reaching perspective on human consciousness – our “hybrid cognitive architecture outside and inside our brain” — here is a lecture to sample at leisure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rA7lrQzb3z0 ]

Homo sapiens sapiens

What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty,In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world …”

– – Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet

Reader, you are an unfathomable, awful, and wonderful species of life-form. But you already knew this.

I’m not taking a position on the question, “Is the species good or evil?” I am trying to determine if the phrase “human nature” is worth retaining in use or whether it’d better for our understanding of ourselves if we stop using this expression.

I offer two pieces linked here telling us what is bad about this species to which you have been born. I will link you to essays telling us what’s good about us.

Take a quick look at these sites; they contextualize what I will be exploring in this column.



As for our innate goodness:



[ For a long read from the perspective that humans aren’t evil:

https://charleseisenstein.org/books/the-more-beautiful-world-our-hearts-know-is-possible/eng/evil/ ]

Nature in genes, Culture in consciousness

It’s easy enough to think of cats and dogs as having a nature, the nature of their species. We know not to expect dogs to train to use kitty litter as cats do, and that cats will not function as dogs do for police work or to guide an unsighted human.

What is human nature, that is not subject to alteration by culture? There is none. Our genes do not fix our behavior. Culture transforms mind. Mind makes us so different from one another that the concept of one single human nature seems to me unsustainable.

The idea that the laws of nature are fixed is taken for granted by almost all scientists and within physics, within cosmology, it leads to an enormous realm of speculation, which I think is totally unnecessary. We’re assuming the laws of nature are fixed. Most of science assumes this, but is it really so in an evolving universe? Why shouldn’t the laws evolve? And if we think about that, then we realize that actually, the whole idea of a law of nature is a metaphor. It’s based on human laws. I mean, after all, dogs and cats don’t obey laws. They have instincts. And in tribes, they don’t even have laws. They have customs. So it’s only in civilized societies that you have laws.

— Dr. Rupert Sheldrake [appendix ***]

Civilization is the most complex form of culture, and determines behavior far more than “instinct” and the materials of our body, brain, and genes. Again, Dr. Donald is, in my opinion, indispensible for a study of culture. https://trevorstone.org/school/donaldreview.html


Culture determines conformity among humans in one society, and yet individualism in the most complicated societies – in the West – sets one person apart from another so much that we have saints and we have sociopaths: Gandhi’s and Mao’s. The problem of human evil is individual more than species-specific. [appendix **]

The reason why otherwise good people will obey an evil leader perplexes me, and as far as I’ve been able to find in historical research, no one can explain good people who can, and do, turn off moral conscience, choosing unconsciousness in order to obey evil leadership.

Culture overpowers individual conscience; Nazism is the historic proof. Dr. Donald has insights to issues around ‘individualism’*.

It seems to me irrefutable that one finds examples of all conceivable qualities in individual humans — but not all of them in one individual. Humans have crossed a threshold to a figurative place where the variation between individuals of one species creates so vast a chasm that one is amazed they’re indeed of a single species.

That consciousness is not the ‘defining glory’ of the human, that it may be the origin of future events extinguishing our species, is a conclusion I cannot avoid.

Dr. Merlin and Dr. McGilchrist are neuro-scientists passionately devoted to solutions to the challenge human natureS set for us. Read the Appendix.


To hope that we can understand ourselves sufficiently in the mass, not in a single individual, is the hope for our species to survive. We face absolutely staggering challenges to our survival — and they are challenges we ourselves created.

The species is in trouble. No one – in any scientific or academic discipline — argues otherwise in 2024. My discipline is History; it provides zero evidence that any single person’s teaching can change the species, saving us with improving lessons.

No Saviour-individual is coming to “transform human nature.” We improve in the mass or we disappear.


I append this because I think the value of Dr. Donald’s argument is incalculable.


His early work on human cognitive evolution was unique in its incorporation of both technology and culture into a theory grounded in brain function and brain evolution. Here Donald urgently speaks to an issue that concerns us all: the potentially radical effect of high technology on human cognitive evolution. 

We are getting further and further away from the way of life that people had 150, 200 let alone 500 years ago. And it’s odd that in some ways, certainly for the middle class, it could be that people had a more satisfactory lifestyle in the 19th century than we have today with all the love the luxuries and comforts we have which they do not have. Of course, there is less poverty, that’s a good thing, but we need a revolution of sorts, a mental revolution, a revolution in our expectations of life. I am mostly concerned with analyzing the structure of the change.
Lots of people have written books both optimistic and pessimistic about the Internet. It’s a wonderful thing, it gives an opportunity to broaden our experience. I think in many ways the Internet is the only hope if you want to eliminate racism and want to raise the bar across the world, but at the same time, the inequalities are completely ridiculous. They’ve reached a point of insanity, and we have a moral issue. I
s one person ever worth twice as much as another person? Can you justify one human being owning 10 times as much as another person? I don’t think you can. I don’t think that the president of the biggest cooperation in the world is worth 10 times the poorest person in the world, but that’s not what we have. Sometimes he may be “worth” a million times more, a hundred thousand times more. That’s crazy. I started off in a very different space. I was given a classical education, so that means a very big focus on the classical humanities. At that time, I never studied psychology or neuroscience, but I did study biology in some detail, and I was very influenced by a number of people, including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Marshall McLuhan, and Northrop Frye. I was curious about psychology and so I studied it and after three months I thought this is ridiculous. It was superficial, it was demeaning, it reduced humans to butterflies, as far as I could see, and did not appreciate the nuances of culture. I saw it really as the language of the enemy. Then gradually I realized that I had to learn about it because there are truths in that are it that are necessary. Can you think of how slowly human beings changed for a long time, and what we’re doing now it’s like a spinning top. Colin Renfrew an eminent archaeologist in England once wrote a book about European people and the spread of agriculture. Agriculture spread, he estimated, at the rate of 30 miles per generation. 30 miles. I go that sometimes to go shopping. And during that time, of course, the environment was transformed. On one side, you had hunter-gatherers and, on the other, you had a densely populated agricultural zone. We have more changes in our mentation every day than they had every generation, by far. Now it’s true we have plastic brains. We acquire information and are good at acquiring new skills. But is this a sustainable way to change? No, of course not. Coping with that is tearing us apart. The main thing is to keep your humanity. Don’t allow yourself to be kidnapped by corporate robots. Many of the people who work for corporations, I feel sympathy for them because they have no choice. They are compelled to do the things they do, but at the top, there is a lot of selfishness and relentless greed. We have to get away from the materialism of this world. We have to get away from consumerism and acquisitions. We have to get back to more modest ambitions in life and more basic things.”

*** Dr. Rupert Sheldrake

Author: The Science Delusion · The Presence of the Past · Ways to Go Beyond and Why They Work.

The appended interview was conducted by Mia Funk and Donna Sanders with the participation of collaborating universities and students. The subject is human cognition and culture.

“… All artists are influenced by other artists and by things in the collective culture, and I think that morphic resonance as collective memory would say that all of us draw unconsciously as well as consciously on a collective memory and all animals draw on a collective memory of their kind as well. We don’t know where it comes from, but there’s true creativity involved in evolution, both human and natural.”­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ All artists are influenced by other artists and by things in the collective culture, and I think that morphic resonance as collective memory would say that all of us draw unconsciously as well as consciously on a collective memory and all animals draw on a collective memory of their kind as well. We don’t know where it comes from, but there’s true creativity involved in evolution, both human and natural. I first went to India in 1968. I was on my way to Malaysia to work at the University of Malaya on tropical rainforest plants. I had a grant from the Royal Society to do this, but I traveled through India and Sri Lanka on the way to Malaysia, and then after my time at the University of Malaya, I traveled back via Thailand to Cambodia and Laos, so I saw something of Southeast Asia and was immensely impressed by exposure to diverse cultures and spiritual practices. Here were these cultures completely unlike anything I’d been brought up with, with highly intelligent people, very sophisticated world views, and spiritual practices like meditation, yoga, and other physical systems, which I thought were enormously important and helpful. So, it literally expanded my mind as the possibilities of human culture, knowledge, and experience and helped jolt me out of a narrowly mechanistic framework of thinking within which I’d been brought up. And there’s now been a lot of scientific studies of spiritual practices that show that, in general, they make people happier, healthier, and live longer.

We all live in an electronic smog surrounded by Wi-Fi devices. And since our cells are electromagnetic and our brain activity is electromagnetic, it’s hard to believe that this does not affect any of us. We just don’t know to what extent these communications are responsible for the decline in insect life or to what extent this plays in increasing rates of cancer or mental disturbances, or children born with autism. And so all these things could be influenced by our devices, but we don’t know.

It’s important to know about our own cultures and something about world history. I think it’s important to be aware of traditions, including the religious traditions of our cultures because they help to integrate and connect us. To abandon them means we’re disintegrated and disconnected. Obviously, everyone needs to know about science and technology because they’re such an important part of the modern world, but I would begin scientific courses by making it clear what are open questions and what are simply assumptions. I think it’s important to be introduced to the culture, literature, music, and other forms of art and architecture and the great buildings. And, of course, learning to sing and to dance and to celebrate and the elements of basic sports. All these things are very important too. It’s not just a matter of sitting looking at screens most of the time. So, I think these are some of the things which are important. And I think that learning things by heart is important too, like poetry or prayers.

**Western Civilization and human individualism

The West dominates global human culture — and it is itself not a healthy civilisation, according to some. On this subject, an interview with neuroscientist Dr. Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. https://unherd.com/2023/05/left-brain-thinking-will-destroy-civilisation/

Dr. Merlin Donald on modern Western civilization and our possible futures

The virtual absence of organized religion from Western public intellectual life is a drastic break with our past. This is evident in the deep alienation of the Western intelligentsia from its own roots. Intellectuals should be, and traditionally have been, the natural conservators of culture, as well as leaders of mass culture. So long as our societies had a common universe of discourse, the work of the intelligentsia affected the lives of most people, from rich to poor, because it had an impact on their imaginational universes, whether by re-interpreting myths, or changing imagery, or introducing new ideas. But in our modern pluralistic society, the public role of the secular intellectual is fast disappearing, and there seems to be very little connection between the work that they do, much of which is esoteric, and religion. With a few notable exceptions, the materialistic, corporate mass culture that surrounds us ignores both of these influences.

This alienation is most obvious in academia, where professional thinkers in various fields seem to feel that it is their duty to destroy the high cultures of the past, with no obligation to replace what has been destroyed. Ironically, they cannot accept mass culture either, because they retain their predecessorsí elitism. The result is that the secular intelligentsia have become more and more alienated with every generation, unable to accept the new order, and uncomfortable with their own deeply religious past. Yeats was right. The center did not hold, there is no still point, and there is no dance. We are in a cultural free-fall, with no ground in sight. The question is, what are the consequences of this? Evolutionary patterns may provide some answers.

The Scattering

However, modern technological society is now challenging all of this. We are living through a revolution that started with mass literacy, a time of enormous cognitive change. It isn’t just that the locus of control has become more diffuse than it once was, or that the public media are fragmenting the memory systems of individuals, shortening our attention spans, and preventing us from gaining any long-term purchase on what is important. These things are certainly a valid cause for concern. However, a deeper event is taking place, a cognitive metamorphosis that has a far-reaching effect on the external distribution of thought and memory.

Humanity has broken out of something that we had always lived by: our biological memory system. Oral traditions, including traditional religion, depended heavily on recitation, repetition, and visual imagination, all of which demanded a very personal involvement in the inculcation of tradition. Cultures were preserved entirely in the minds of individuals, that is, within the limits of our inherited biological memory systems.

Modern high-tech culture is something altogether different. It is externalized to a far greater degree, controlled by a blizzard of symbols, computers and electronic media. Our highly plastic nervous systems are able to make fine adjustments to each new cognitive reality as it arises; but now the actual operational tools by which we think are changing, and new demands are being made on our brains, which will reshape their basic functional organization (just as we see the “architecture” of a child’s mind indelibly shaped in early development). All of this has, and will have, tremendous consequences.


Religion both as an institution and as a process of mind has the same evolutionary history as any of our other cultural domains. It weaves a multilayered web of practice, gesture, word, and symbol, by which it influences the way we experience meaning, and how we evaluate the significance of our lives. Just as the public expression of religion reflects our membership in a collective process, we have no choice but to internalize that process in our individual minds. Our spirituality still rests firmly on a mimetic core, and this remains emotionally the most satisfying aspect of religion. The stabilizing virtues of religion still tend to come from the traditional sources of communal practice and belief.

But the place of religion in our new society is not easy to define. Our traditional sources of cultural governance are exploding into a million disparate globalized fragments. We seem to be in danger of a parallel fragmentation of personal consciousness, and if so, this could have consequences that may ultimately bear on our integrity as individuals.


Perhaps individualism as we have known it in the West will prove to be an ephemeral historical accident, and we will slip back into a comfortable group-think, which would be consistent with much of our history as a species.

Perhaps we will move in the opposite direction, towards extreme individualism, to the point of moral anarchy, or even a denial of the external world.

Perhaps we may yet find a solution to this bewildering new cultural universe, as we have so many times in the past, and achieve some degree of balance between individualism and collectivity.

Perhaps a new religious genius will discover a fantastically clever way to protect the sacred core that has sustained human beings through our turbulent history as a species. We can only hope that this will happen.

The final “perhaps” in Dr. Donald’s comments is one I find historically incredible.

* about “soul” :

Dr. Iain Gilchrist: “So is the concept of the soul a redundant idea now that science has made us see it as a superstition, or are we actually turning our backs on something very important, simply because we can’t satisfy demands for precision and proof; and in fact are we making a category mistake? So I’m going to ask today two questions. What use is the soul as an idea? And I think I have an answer to that. I think it has a use. And I’m also going to ask if so what might the soul be like? And about that I’m afraid I am less certain, but I’m going to have a go.”



Categories: GeneralOp/Ed

Other News Stories